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Author David Farland has some tips for how to grab your reading right from the outset.
https://mailchi.mp/xmission/david-farlands-writing-tips-opening-well

 

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There is a list of things that you need to do in opening a story. In fact, depending upon the author you talk to, there are dozens of different lists.

For example, one editor that I respect recently suggested that in the opening, you need to establish the “Ghost” of the story, spelled G.O.S.T.

G stand for the Goal—that does your character hope to achieve. Does she want to return to a younger time, solve her financial problems, escape her father’s influence?  

O stands for the Obstacles your character faces. Is it another person, the basic facts of life, health problems, society as a whole?

S stands for the Stakes of the story. What real personal emotional stakes are on the line for your character? It isn’t enough to say that the world is in danger. The world is too big a place, too unknowable, too unlikeable. Frodo Baggins didn’t give a hoot about the world—Gollum in his cave, Shelob in her lair. He cared about Hobbiton, about his little home at Bag’s End. In the same way, your protagonist needs to love her little sister, her house on the beach, or something else that she feels deeply connected with.

T is for Tactics. What strategy does your character devise in order to get what she wants? If your readers don’t know what she plans to do and why she plans to do it, they won’t care about the story. If your protagonist learns about a problem and then just walks out her front door, we have no idea where she is going. She could be taking a walk to calm down, or perhaps going to a bank in the hopes of robbing it. There can be no tension until we know what she hopes to do and why.

Of course, other authors have their lists of things we want to do in an opening. Orson Scott Card has a list of questions he wants to answer for his reader. Here they are: “What’s going on?” “Oh, yeah?” “Why should I care?” 

In the opening, we have a character who is typically introduced in the process of doing something. We need to explain what that is, what her motivations are.

When we get to the “Oh, yeah?” question, we need to help the reader buy in to the story, to engage their “suspension of disbelief.” In science fiction and fantasy we often start with a premise that might sound wildly implausible. For example, I might have two characters arguing while strolling on the surface of the sun. So an early job as writers might be to explain the premises of the story in such a way that walking on the sun becomes believable. 

In a similar way, I might have a character who is engaged in an extraordinary endeavor—let’s say a quest to overthrow a foreign dignitary. I might need to work hard just to explain the character’s motivation and methods for doing it. If my protagonist is a head for a covert government agency and a trained assassin, he would try to resolve the problem a lot differently than if he were a pastry chef.

Then we have the question, “Why should I care?” This one is so important that it may take a lot of work. It may be that the protagonist is facing a problem that the reader is worried about. It may be that you need to emphasize commonalities between the reader and the protagonist. 

If your reader doesn’t care about he protagonist, chances are good that the reader won’t make it even a few pages into the story. I’ve abandoned books hundreds of pages in simply because I found the protagonists’ to be unlikeable. Sometimes their mores are reprehensible, their habits disgusting, and their very thoughts revolting. So I toss the stories.

Algis Budrys used to say that there are seven parts to a story, and the first three of those come in the opening. You need to establish a character (usually a protagonist), in a setting, with a significant conflict. This might sound easy, but just doing those three things in a way that is alluring and entertaining can be a challenge.

For example, let’s take your character. If you’re introducing a protagonist, you might want to do it in a way that illustrates who this person is at heart—what things they love, what they fear, what secrets they hold. You might want to astonish the reader with the protagonist’s skills or motives. You may even want to hide information on the protagonist’s background for introduction later. 

More importantly, you may have an entire cast that you need to begin introducing in an opening scene—an antagonist, a lover, a teacher, a dear friend. So just introducing the characters can be tough. Once you get more than three characters in a scene, just staging where each is in relation to the others can be problematic.

As far as the setting goes, you need to answer basic questions of where and when this story takes place. Is it in a hole in a ground where a Hobbit lives? What kind of a hole is it? And what the hell is a Hobbit?  Beyond that, what is near at hand for the protagonist, what is in the midground, and what’s in the background? What time period are we in? What time is it exactly? What’s the light source for the scene and what’s the weather like today? 

What of conflicts? Every character usually has at least one, and probably several. The protagonist might be late for work when the car breaks down. She doesn’t have money for a cab, and needs to be to work by ten.  She might have a sick baby and she’s worried about it, but by the end of the first scene in a short story, our protagonist usually has a jaw-dropping moment where she realizes that she is in for the most-significant fight of her life. Maybe she gets to her job as a teller and finds that her bank has been robbed, and that everyone working in the bank was killed, and now the police think that it was an inside job.

That fight might be with an ex-spouse for control of their daughter, or it might be a fight with a rare disease that threatens her life, or it could be a struggle with an addiction that could ruin her life, but it needs to be significant.

I like to add something to Algis’s list, however. I like to add a hook. A hook is any little tidbit of information that makes the reader wonder.

For example, consider the line by Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” When and where is this story taking place? Well, these words could easily be penned by someone who was looking at our world today, but Dickens was talking about the world of London and Paris just before the French Revolution.

This is what I call a “setting hook.” It’s designed to make people wonder what and when the setting is. So the hook actually works toward fulfilling the reader’s needs in receiving a story.

There are a lot of kinds of hooks. I talk about eight of them in my Writing Enchanting Prose courses, and Alfred Hitchcock played with a couple of others, but having hooks in the opening of a story does some subtle things.

All stories rely in part on a sense of mystery—what is going to happen next? Why? How will the character resolve this problem? When will the detective recognize who the real killer is, and so on. 

By using a hook early on, we create a mystery. Just by getting involved in that mystery, the reader’s brain is given a little burst of dopamine, a reward for having begun the story, which then induces the reader to read on. As the author answers that mystery over ensuing paragraphs and pages, it creates a sense of trust in the reader. On a subconscious level, the reader begins to recognize that the writer will not just raise questions but will also answer them in a compelling and exciting way. 

In short, the opening to any story promises the reader a sense of fulfillment.

 

 

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The question is: would The Hobbit or A Tale of Two Cities get published today?  Or would be they be rejected because the first chapter, "didn't grab the reader's attention?"

 

 

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Thanks for the advice, Johne!  (And I agree with the others ... many classic novels probably wouldn't make it past an editor's desk today because of the lengths of their narratives. People today have the attention span of a gnat. In all the writing contest I've entered, only one judge dinged me for not having enough narrative to her taste.)

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I love acronyms. Reading the post and elaborating, we can add an H to the GOST to get a proper GHOST:

 

Goal Hook Obstacle Stakes Tactics.

 

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This is great advice! 

 

The opening line of my first book was, "I wasn't born in jail, but I came pretty close." It was my one-line hook for a memoir.

 

My new book is a collection of 8 testimonies, and I started each one with a climactic paragraph from the person's story, then went back to the beginning of their story. Each one starts with a paragraph-length hook. That also gave me ready-made teasers to use in marketing, so I've been giving the opening paragraph to a story along with "coming soon" posts. I've gotten pretty good responses on some of them (and surprisingly negative feedback on one!).

 

I always wonder if classic books would get published today. There's no telling how a classic would do in a different time and place. Pirsig went through dozens of rejections with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but once it was published it sold millions of copies. How many potentially great authors stopped just one submission short of making it?

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I have never read a Harry Potter book, but I understand the author received multiple rejections. A secretary gave it her personal recommendation, asking her boss to take a second look. The point is, don't give up.

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5 hours ago, Lana Christian said:

the most-rejected-books-that-went-on-to-become-bestsellers list.

That is interesting!!! That took a lot of research!

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On 7/5/2020 at 6:44 PM, Chris Brown said:

How many potentially great authors stopped just one submission short of making it?

 

Yep; I wonder, too, Chris.

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A lot like people earning their GEDs. They changed the requirements in 2014. The previous GED consisted of five tests (Reading, Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies). When the test was being redesigned, we went through the records and sent out notices to everyone who had not finished them all. A large percentage of them had only one test left to go. A few came in to finish, but not as many as we had hoped. Still, everyone who finished had a high school diploma and better options ahead of them.

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"The most-rejected-books-that-went-on-to-become-bestsellers list." I found this fascinating. I don't plan on ever giving up, I love the craft of writing too much.

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On 6/24/2020 at 11:06 PM, Johne said:

Then we have the question, “Why should I care?” This one is so important that it may take a lot of work. It may be that the protagonist is facing a problem that the reader is worried about. It may be that you need to emphasize commonalities between the reader and the protagonist. 

This has to do with knowing your audience.  And knowing humanity in general.  We can't possible have all commonalities in one story, so we target. A good writer can make the reader think they see commonalities where there are none!

 

 

On 6/24/2020 at 11:06 PM, Johne said:

You may even want to hide information on the protagonist’s background for introduction later. 

I recently learned  the term "Easter Egg."  There is much magic in writing. The bait and switch, the distraction before the big reveal.  Lots to learn!  

 

 

On 6/24/2020 at 11:06 PM, Johne said:

By using a hook early on, we create a mystery. Just by getting involved in that mystery, the reader’s brain is given a little burst of dopamine, a reward for having begun the story, which then induces the reader to read on. As the author answers that mystery over ensuing paragraphs and pages, it creates a sense of trust in the reader. On a subconscious level, the reader begins to recognize that the writer will not just raise questions but will also answer them in a compelling and exciting way. 

In short, the opening to any story promises the reader a sense of fulfillment.

 

This is a good description of what happens in a reader's brain. Chemistry and physiology, subconscious and logic, questions and trusting the answers to come at the right time. The greatest compliment we can receive from our readers is trust. 

The book of Isaiah taught me about timing. At first he has long stretches of Woe and short passages of comfort, until he hits the "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people." Then he slowly shortens the Woes and lengthens the comfort.  

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